Suzanne_Evans_Wagner.jpgSuzanne Evans Wagner is an assistant professor in the Linguistics program. Her researchaddresses the social andlinguistic factors that cause language changes to occur over time. To understand all these factors, large amounts of natural language data in both written and spoken form are needed. Her students are involved in the collection, processing and analysis of this data in the MSU Sociolinguistics Laboratory. Through this work, undergraduate and graduate students have opportunities to learn research skills using real texts and recordings.

 Age grading

Dr Wagner is especially interested in "age grading": the association of language features with particular lifestages such as adolescence. She has examined this phenomenon from a number of perspectives. With Dr Gillian Sankoff (U of Pennsylvania) she has been looking at an age-graded feature of Montreal French, the "inflected" future tense, which is most frequently used by older adults. In 2010 Dr Wagner recruited Laura Jensen, an undergraduate student majoring in Linguistics and French, to help read through hundreds of transcripts of casual interviews. Jensen assisted with the identification of future tense forms, and with coding them for a variety of linguistic and contextual properties. This collaboration resulted in a joint presentation at a major conference, and a forthcoming publication. Jensen went on to pursue graduate work in Romance Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. In another study of French syntax, Wagner hired undergraduate Bailey Doolittle thanks to a grant from the College of Arts & Letters Undergraduate Research Initiative (CAL-URI). Doolittle compared syntactic features of an Old French manuscript with its Middle English translation. She hopes to study historical linguistics at the graduate level.

Since 2005 Dr Wagner has been carrying out a longitudinal study of young women in Philadelphia, PA. The study tracks the women's speech from high school through the post-college years, and compares it with changes going on more generally in the community. At the same time, the study takes into account the women's social circumstances and their attitudes to their own speech. Undergraduate and graduate students have been involved in transcribing speech and carrying out acoustic analyses; a new team of undergraduate research assistants, funded by a HARP grant and partly recruited through the Venture database, will join the project for 2012-2013. A series of workshops on transcription and acoustic analysis skills, co-led by Dr Karthik Durvasula, an MSU professor of phonetics and phonology, is also planned for early Fall 2012. 

The MSU Sociolinguistics Lab

Wagner’s Philadelphia transcripts have also been used as the basis for a "big lab project", which is discussed in weekly lab meetings in the MSU Sociolinguistics Lab. The "big project" is designed to offer something even to lowerclassmen with little or no background in linguistics, who are simply looking for an opportunity to get involved in language research. In the last year, the entire lab investigated a familiar feature of casual English speech: 'general extenders', or phrases such as or whatever, and stuff and things like that. General extenders occur in most people's speech, but they are also age-graded: they are particularly frequent in the speech of teenagers and young people. Anonymized transcripts of Dr Wagner's interviews with young women were searched for the phrases, and then the lab looked at their distribution across social groups and their functions in conversation. Although some students were content to listen and learn, others took on roles in the project. Two graduate students, Ashley Hesson and Kali Bybel, led development discussions of the coding scheme, in which feedback from all of the students was solicited and incorporated into revisions to the scheme. An Honors College Professorial Assistant served as the project administrator. Graduate and undergraduate students worked on batches of transcriptions, and learned to identify general extenders and analyze their properties. In one lab meeting, everyone learned how to run statistical software to analyze the outcomes. The "big project" has so far generated two international conference presentations, a poster at UURAF, a conference proceedings paper (to appear), a manuscript submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, and an invitation to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming book. Graduate and undergraduate students have been named as co-authors on all of these outputs, in recognition of their important efforts. A current spin-off project, using similar techniques on transcribed telephone conversations from a corpus at the Linguistic Data Consortium, will result in a senior thesis in FS12.

In 2011-12, graduate research assistant Madeline Shellgren supported Dr Wagner's pilot investigation with Dr Laura Dilley (Communication Sciences and Disorders) into the perception of age-graded features. Shellgren mentored an undergraduate volunteer, with whom she ran a perception experiment. Both students were involved in every stage of the pilot, from design of the study, discussion of methods with a statistical analyst, recruitment of subjects and analysis of the data. The pilot project is being developed further this year, with the intention of submitting a grant proposal for external funding. Student volunteers in the lab will once again be involved in modifying the design and in running the experiment.

Outside of the lab, students in Wagner's graduate class LIN 871 Sociolinguistics have helped to build a small corpus of recorded interviews with people in the Lansing area. The interviews provide social insights into life on Lansing's Eastside neighborhood, and an emerging linguistic picture of local speech. The recordings have been used in Wagner's classes to illustrate local sound change, and for experimental stimuli in a recent undergraduate senior thesis project.

Sociolinguistics is a data-driven discipline. It should and can provide students with multiple opportunities to "get their hands dirty" in the data. Fortunately for them, the data is often engaging and interesting: most of the time it is ordinary people talking about their lives. For those whose path doesn't ultimately lie in the field of linguistics, it still allows for insights into the nature of the interaction between language and society. It's no accident that some of the students currently in the lab are simultaneously majoring in other fields in which communication between social groups is critical: political science, education and medicine, for example. For graduate students, involvement in sociolinguistic research at an early stage of their graduate careers can shape their whole trajectory. Ashley Hesson, an MD-PhD student, helped out with the general extenders "big project" in her first year of her PhD. She became so interested in discourse features that she has begun to look at their distribution in doctor-patient consultation corpora, and is mentoring an undergraduate pre-med student with similar interests. Ashley's experience demonstrates that involving students in research doesn't only mean interaction between faculty and students. In the best cases, it creates the right environment for students to interact with students as well.